According to the UK government as of 19 December 2021, the Omicron variant was detected as the most dominant variant of concern in the UK. Leading to an increase in cases that saw more people choosing to cancel plans during a holiday period when they would otherwise have been more movement and socialising. 

What do we know about this new variant so far? 

SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.529 also known as omicron was first reported to the W.HO. by South African Scientists on November 24, 2021. This new variant was first detected in specimens collected on November 11, 2021, in Botswana and on November 14, 2021, in South Africa.

Omicron was quickly identified as a variant of concern due to findings that showed that it contained several mutations that indicated that it might behave differently from the delta variant that was the dominant variant at the time. 

So far, Omicron appears to be showing higher transmissibility but studies in South Africa, the UK, Denmark and other parts of the world are ongoing. According to WHO, the current information indicates that initially, more people tested positive in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but scientists there indicate that since December, South Africa may have already reached the peak. 

When it comes to the severity of disease, it seems that even though it may not cause severe disease in most people as previous variants, Omicron the sheer volume of people testing positive is still forcing huge numbers to isolate. Even with less severity, there has been a worrying trend across the UK, EU, US and Australia that is seeing an increase in COVID-19 hospitalization rates.

What are the symptoms?

According to the CDC and W.H.O, like other dominant variants before, people have experienced and reported a wide range of symptoms from Omicron – ranging from asymptomatic cases to mild symptoms while others experience a severe illness that results in hospitalisation. According to the latest data, symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. Anyone can have mild to severe symptoms. There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants. All variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, in particular for the most vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always key. 

Here are the most common symptoms of COVID-19 to watch: 

  1. Fever or chills
  2. Cough
  3. Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  4. Fatigue
  5. Muscle or body aches
  6. Headache
  7. New loss of taste or smell
  8. Sore throat
  9. Congestion or runny nose
  10. Nausea or vomiting
  11. Diarrhoea

This list is being updated regularly as the scientific community continues to learn more about COVID-19 and the impact of its mutations. 

Effectiveness of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection 

Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron, thus those who were previously infected with other variants don’t have immunity from Omicron, as compared to other variants of concern, but the information is still limited.

Are vaccines effective against Omicron?

Economist Frederik Plesner Lyngse of the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Statens Serum Institute and his colleagues found that in households with a Delta outbreak, the unvaccinated were twice as likely to be infected by a household member as those who were fully vaccinated. In households struck by Omicron, unvaccinated and fully vaccinated people had roughly equal chances of catching the virus. This is why many countries like the UK are encouraging their citizens to get booster shots to increase their immunity against the new variant. Thus the Danish study showed that a booster shot cut the risk of infection by Omicron in half. Being vaccinated also reduces an infected person’s chance of infecting others. Noting that in both delta and omicron, an unvaccinated case was 41% more likely to infect another household member than a fully vaccinated one (1).

What about testing tools?

The widely used PCR test swabs continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron, as we have seen with other variants as well. But confirming that a suspected case is Omicron requires a full genetic analysis, which takes between four and five days. By looking closely at the genetic material provided through testing, scientists can confirm whether someone is positive with Omicron or the already widely-circulating Delta.

Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests (also referred to as a lateral flow test).  

How do you protect yourself?

Current safety measures like wearing a mask, washing your hands regularly, social distancing, vaccinating and knowing your covid status through testing still apply to the Omicron variant. So, with hospitals becoming more congested and pressure on NHS workers increasing, we all have a responsibility to play our part.